Sometimes an architectural idea looks great on paper but fails to live up to expectations in real life. Occasionally, they’re impressive but relatively useless, representing a huge financial burden or failing to be repurposed after being used for a short time span or a single event.
In architecture, these high-profile disasters are often referred to as white elephants— alluding to gifting these animals in some Southeast Asian cultures. For the recipient, it was a blessing and a curse. It was a sign of favour, and you certainly couldn’t turn down a gift from a king. However, the sacred white elephants could not be used for work. You, therefore, ended up with an impressive but impractical animal that was expensive to keep and maintain. Hence, the white elephant in architecture.
Take a look at the video below to see 7 major structures wasting billions of dollars every year.
Former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev once described Vladivostok as “Russia’s San Francisco” and the city now has its own iconic bridge to more than match the Golden Gate Bridge – in some respects at least. Commissioned by Vladimir Putin for an economic summit, Russky Bridge is undoubtedly an impressive feat of engineering. With a 1,104m long central span, it is also the world's longest cable-stayed bridge.
The problem? Well, the summit lasted just two days and the bridge connects the city to Russky Island, which has a population of just 5,000. This makes the bridge, which could comfortably handle 50,000 cars a day, ridiculously underused. It’s essentially a road to nowhere that cost a reported $1bn (£707m).
Ciudad Real Central Airport
“If you build it, they will come” – that was the mantra in Kevin Costner flick Field Of Dreams, but it certainly didn’t apply to the ambitious Ciudad Real Central Airport, also known as Don Quixote Airport and South Madrid Airport, located some 120 miles from the centre of Spain’s capital. It was planned to be linked to the AVE high-speed rail network, but this never happened, and an airport designed to handle 10 million passengers a year attracted just a few thousand.
Ryanair was among the budget airlines who flew to Ciudad Real but only for around six months. In 2015 it was reported that the airport was sold at a bankruptcy auction to a group of international investors for just €10,000 (£7,000) – around 100,000 times less than the facility cost to build.
Ambedkar Memorial Park
If we’re talking about white elephants, we can’t ignore the huge parks built by Mayawati Das, former chief minister of India’s Uttar Pradesh. The parks contain hundreds of colossal statues including – you guessed it – scores of white elephants. It cost a reported $1.3 billion (£900m) in a country with grinding poverty and was heavily criticised. A subsequent chief minister looked at converting the space into hospitals for the poor.
Montreal Olympic Stadium
If you think the fate of Brazil’s stadia was bad, what about Montreal’s purpose-built Olympic Stadium? Built for a sum that would be equivalent to around £1bn, it was originally slated to be opened in 1972, but wasn’t even finished in time for the opening of the games four years later in 1976. The roof materials were left to languish in a French warehouse until 1982, and the roof and distinctive tower were not finished for some years after that. If that’s not bad enough, a portion actually collapsed in 1999.
The stadium is nicknamed ‘The Big O’ due to the shape of the (finally finished) roof, but is just as frequently referred to as ‘The Big Owe’ due to its astronomical costs.
The Ryugyong Hotel
The pyramidal Ryugyong Hotel in Pyongyang, North Korea, is an imposing sight. It towers over the skyline and is by far the tallest structure in the country. The main problem is that construction started more than three decades ago and is yet to be finished.
There has been a multitude of problems, including an economic crisis following the collapse of the Soviet Union. One North Korean government official told the Los Angeles Times in 2008 that construction was not completed "because [the country] ran out of money".
In April this year, it was reported that a huge LED display was added to the top of the structure showing the nation’s flag. That’s an estimated $1.3bn (£920m) spent.
Romanian Palace of the Parliament
The Palace of the Parliament in Bucharest is the third largest building in the world, with 365,000 square meters of floor space. Like many of these structures, it’s undeniably impressive, but whether it was worth its cost is another question entirely.
Built under dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, CNN reported that: “Construction involved 700 architects and 20,000 building workers doing three shifts a day, plus 5,000 army personnel, 1.5 million factory workers and an army of so-called volunteers.”
Its construction also reportedly involved the resettlement of 40,000 people, as well as the demolition of numerous schools, hospitals, churches and other religious buildings.
Today only around one-third of the building is in use and the heating costs alone top £4m per year. Hopefully that puts your last energy bill in some sort of perspective.
South China Mall
We’ll finish with a project that might just have shed its white elephant status and turned itself into a success. The New South China Mall in Dongguan, China is the biggest shopping mall in the world when measured in terms of leasable shop space, and second in terms of total area to The Dubai Mall – which also has a zoo!
Unlike the highly profitable Dubai Mall, however, the Dongguan development spent more than a decade devoid of both shoppers and shops. Dongguan’s largely migrant worker population could not afford the goods, and in 2008, three years after its grand opening, 99% of the stores either remained vacant or had gone back to being so. It was nicknamed ‘The Ghost Mall,’ but a recent relaunch appears to have brought it back from the dead.
Its new strategy is to target China’s growing middle class rather than the vastly wealthy. The result is a mixture of retail and non-retail attractions, with amusements for the kids and a huge IMAX-style cinema.
This possibly serves as proof that you can teach an old white elephant new tricks.